Virtual Noise and Spirituality

 

Gustav Dore

“How can zazen, just sitting uselessly doing nothing, be depended upon for attaining enlightenment? Answer: If you think that the samadhi of all buddhas, their unsurpassable great art, is just sitting uselessly doing nothing, you malign the Great Vehicle. Such misunderstanding is like saying there is no water when you are in the middle of the ocean.”
Dogen

“Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat: The Mark Inside.”
—William Burroughs

I recently returned to writing after a 6 month hiatus. I took a break because I’d realized I was writing compulsively rather than trying to navigate new ideas or share personal revelations; mostly I was just trying to produce a new essay each day. I enjoyed seeing the immediate audience reaction to what I was doing, even if much of it was noise. And that’s how many people approach their lives— this day isn’t necessarily about gleaning insight, uncovering what’s true or giving life our full attention, but about churning out another X or another Y. We get just enough soft attention for our efforts from others on social media that we forget what we’re doing is vacant and silly. We consume information the same way, misinterpreting quantity for quality. And when we consume noise in high quantity, it dulls us.

This tendency is reflective of a certain hatred for life that we cultivate in response to a stifling of the spirit. Childhood becomes all about study, study becomes all about work, work becomes all about retirement, retirement becomes all about death, and after 50 or 60 years go by you have human beings who’ve gone through life on a specifically modern type of autopilot.

This is the flipside of a life in which all survival needs and creature comforts are taken care of. When death feels too abstract or distant, as it does in high modernity, we take life for granted. We crank out one day after another, doing things without full engagement, consuming information without full attention, and experiencing things with a dull veneer of apathy. The closer today looks to yesterday, the more it feels like eternity. And everybody loves eternity.

The problem is that life is finite no matter how hard we try to inundate ourselves with habitual behaviors. The virtuality of screens and performed behaviors online has its own eternal nature; the digital is more permanent than the real. But our devotion to it comes at a spiritual price.

The fundamental problem I’m getting at is that we often do what is comfortable or what we’re told rather than what we know is right. We find the shortest path between two points and take it all the way. We think it’s easier or more rewarding— but is it? Would you rather shave with your eyes closed while someone else tells you where to shave, or open your eyes and do it in a mirror? The answer to that question is obvious, yet most of us live our lives listening to guidance we have no way of validating, following paths we only have the illusion of being able to judge with objectivity.

We never think to look within, to sit in contemplative silence until we uncover answers deep within the recesses of the ‘self’. On a small scale, this causes people to let op-ed articles and ‘fake news’ ruin their day, or to feel a deep positive or negative connection to a president, religious figure or celebrity. The attention we devote to virtuality and performance makes us mistake the big charade for reality.

On a larger scale, this lack of critical acuity results in a life of complete and utter delusion, in which not a single moment is spent in true reflection. The spirit is left confusedly neglected. If it is attended to, it’s showered in short platitudes and New Age happy-go-lucky ambitions, like “be here now”, “love is the answer”, “if you seek, you will find”. When we avoid the real sort of reflection, we remain stuck in the world of information. Even inspiring information is still just information. It’s severely limited. It’s what causes nerds on the internet to think their inner-lives can be explained exclusively by science, religious zealots to think that their inner-lives can be explained exclusively by God’s will, or a rich housewife to think that happiness comes once you ‘want’ it bad enough. In all cases, someone else told them so. They heard something. They read something. Does taking what we consume at face value not make us servile and weak?

The answer, as always, is very simple: to find truth in any facet of life, we must look inward and be patient.

Mere observation isn’t enough. The crucial practice is to be consistent and straight-forward in how we observe. Sometimes you look within and don’t want to see what you see, but you still see it. Maybe it goes against what you’ve learned, or what you believe. But if you turn a blind eye to the truth, it will almost certainly bite you in the ass later. Even if it doesn’t, to ignore what you know is true in favor of what’s comfortable is a uniquely human type of stupidity.

People do this every day, in politics, religion, work life and personal life. Even while reading this you’ll think to yourself, “Yeah they do! They think ___ is ___! What an idiot!” Congratulations. That’s you doing the same thing. We love to make petty value judgements, but the joke is usually on us. The thing about being trapped in these external valuations is that whether one is for or against, one is still fundamentally wrong. When your gaze is directed outward, it’s usually misdirected, regardless of what you identify with. This is why people get their identities tangled up with labels, ideologies, isms, figures, etc; they have not looked far enough within.

This applies on a more microcosmic scale too. For example, it’s easier to pretend a relationship’s problems come from a fundamental mismatch rather than mutual laziness, weakness or immaturity. It’s easier to blame people who disagree with you of being ignorant or evil rather than doing the work of learning their point of view. It’s easier to assume you’re right than to investigate why you’re probably wrong. We see just how much easier delusional living is simply by the sheer numbers— most people do it. As self-selected spiritual reflectors, aren’t we looking for something a bit deeper?

This doesn’t mean to become a jerk or an elitist. It means keeping most of this stuff to yourself, lest you fall victim to the same outward projection of purely inner-truths. But it does mean to take just about everything with a grain of salt. Modern society teaches individuals to be pleasant, nice and comfy at all costs, stifling us from doing the disciplined internal work that results in a life of meaning. In business, people lie to each other to be nice and ignore glaring problems and inconsistencies. In politics, people try to make their utopian ideals into realities, often causing massive problems. In spirituality, people get so caught up in terminology and dogma that they don’t actually practice or meditate.

We shouldn’t listen, read or observe— to our own hearts or to the voices of others— so that we can mindlessly nod ‘yes’ in affirmation. We should do it so we can reach a deeper underlying truth and get to the essence of things, otherwise we should stop pretending. The point of paying attention is to see more clearly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what we see is going to make sense, and that’s alright. The key is to just practice. It’s unglamorous and unremarkable, and that’s the point.

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